Warby Parker, the web-based prescription eyeglass company that disrupted the industry with its cut-rate online business model when it was founded by Wharton undergrads in 2010, is muscling its way into the brick-and-mortar world. After testing the market with a pop-up bus tour and several “annex” showrooms within other stores, it launched a dedicated retail storefront in New York City in 2013, and has since expanded to more than a dozen cities around the U.S.
Its next target is Philadelphia.
This is thrilling to the company’s many bespectacled acolytes, who embrace the low price and modern look of the products, and look forward to having a place to browse them in person (orders are still fulfilled via the website). But not everyone speaks highly of their Warby experience — some are disappointed by shoddy quality or lack of personalized fit. Local eyeglass shops also have varied opinions about the web-based giant’s pending physical invasion. Some are wary of price competition, others see a silver lining, and one — Philly EyeWorks — has even reverse engineered Warby’s model to compete.
Is Warby actually coming to Philly?
Notoriously tight-lipped, the company took an FBI-like “can neither confirm nor deny” approach to multiple Billy Penn queries about its plans to open in the former Le Bec-Fin building at 1523 Walnut St. “We don’t have any information to share, and we will be in touch if and when we do,” said a representative via email.
The Warby Parker employees that run its mini satellite showroom in Old City, which has operated out of the Art in the Age boutique since 2011, also declined to speculate. “It’s a mystery to us,” said supervisor Geoff Kixmiller, who noted he was unable to comment further.
Neither Pearl Properties, which owns 1523 Walnut, nor CBRE agent Larry Steinberg, who often handles leasing for Pearl, responded to requests for comment. But Steinberg has indicated to the Inquirer that he’s proud of having orchestrated the deal bringing Warby back to its fountainhead city. Understandably so; transforming the space into a hip retail shop would be a big boon to Rittenhouse Row. After 40-plus years of being a prime destination, the renowned address has been a gaping vacancy since short-lived Avance restaurant shuttered in late 2014.
“We expect [Warby Parker’s] commitment to Center City will prove to be a great success,” Steinberg told the paper last December, describing the company’s business model as “the toast of the retail world.”
Why customers love Warby stores
Several factors helped Warby Parker achieve its unicorn-status $1.2 billion valuation, from price to convenience to fashion to philanthropy. Where a regular pair of prescription glasses might go for $250 to $500 (and up, if you want to sport high-end frames), Warby offers several chic designs for just $100 a pop — lenses and frames included. Plus, for each pair it sells, the company donates a pair of glasses to charity.
“I’m on my third pair,” said Bonnie Noll, who owns East Passyunk Avenue’s Vanilya Bakery. “Love the whole experience and company.” Noll chooses to visit a regular optician and then take the prescription to the Art in the Age showroom to pick frames before the online order is placed for her. The storefronts offer an easier try-before-you-buy alternative; the other option is to have several preliminary non-prescription sample frames shipped to try on at home.
“The same ones you thought you’d like online are the ones you like in person,” said graphic designer Jon Kostesich, who recently moved from Philly to Ohio. “It’s just good for saving time with sample shipping.”
There can be quality issues
The cheap price point — especially handy for those with no or little vision insurance — doesn’t come without downsides. Warby frames and lenses are made in Chinese factories, and the quality sometimes suffers.
“Went to the store in Boston and got a couple pairs of cool frames,” said Philly restaurateur Jason Evenchik, but, he said, the material they’re made of “gives me a weird nose sweat none of my other glasses do, so I don’t wear them often.”
Philly resident Emily Kohlhas bought two pairs after trying on frames in Old City showroom, but “when I got them with my prescription, one gave me a royal headache,” she said. “Turns out the measurements they take in the store don’t account for the way the the glasses fit on your face and the angle the of the lens so I was seeing through the wrong part of the glass!”
That may have happened because not all Warby stores are staffed by licensed opticians — Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states where that’s not a requirement. Warby’s employees don’t actually fulfill orders, they just click through the corporate website like any regular person might.
To fix her issue, Kohlhas went to a local expert. “The awesome folks at Modern Eye were kind enough to adjust the fit for me as much as they could, but [the Warby glasses] are still no substitute for my higher end, fitted frames.”
A threat or a relief?
“Most local eyeglass stores are bitter about Warby Parker and their success and the amount of attention they get,” said Clifton Balter, owner of InnerVision Eyewear on 18th Street in Rittenhouse. When Warby launched its “Class Trip” school bus tour in 2012, they parked the mobile showroom directly in front of his boutique.
“They parked it in front of my shop two Saturdays in a row,” he said. “There’s a lot of genius things about them, but also what I think are disingenuous things.
“They’ll tell you the quality is the same as a $500 handmade frame. It’s not, and that’s not fair to do. When you buy Ikea, you don’t think you’re buying a Mercedes. When you go to McDonald’s, you don’t think you’re going to Barclay Prime.”
Instead of simply feeling bitter — like several other boutique eyeglass shop owners who declined to comment for this story (what’s with all the secrecy? Is Warby owned by the CIA or something?) — Balter decided to try to compete with Warby at its own game. In 2014, he launched the low-cost Philly EyeWorks brand, which offers lens-plus-frames for $150 or less, available online. Customers choose from 17 styles, and the product is manufactured in China. Unlike Warby, however, each pair is custom-finished at the Philadelphia workshop.
And while Warby’s low-cost model does steal sales from classical eyeglass operations, there’s an upside to the launch of brick-and-mortar locations, said another local optician, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I’m happy they’re opening here,” he said. “Their inability to make glasses properly makes for a whole lot of prescription rechecks — the patient comes back to us thinking we messed up.”
When an unhappy patient is back in the chair, it keeps a new, paying customer out. Now those people can simply take their complaints to the Warby Parker store directly.
“Them being here will save us a lot of time,” he said.